The words Russia and nuclear always stoke the fires of hacks who hark back to the cold war. But this time the finger hovering over the red button will be launching a rocket to Mars, rather than a missile to end civilisation.
So news that Russia is planning a nuclear-powered rocket to get men to Mars (and back again?) has got widespread attention. The report comes from Russian news agency RIA Novosti who have a short account of Roscosmos head Anatoly Perminov’s address to a meeting of the commission on the modernization of the Russian economy. The spacecraft is still being designed, Perminov is reported as saying, with final plans finished by 2012. The cost will be at least 17 billion rubles, or $580 million.
Beyond that the report is patchy, but thanks to Rachel Courtland over at New Scientist and an AP story we can learn that at the moment rockets can be powered by the heat given off by certain decaying radioactive isotopes, or by using nuclear fission to generate electricity.
The Russian reactor is probably going to produce a megawatt or more of electrical power from a fission reactor. This kind of reactor/engine will be much more efficient once in space, but could kill the crew from exposure to massive doses of radiation on lift off. And according to the NS story, the budget really won’t buy much in terms of fission-reactor-powered-rockets. And the Register suggests that Russia will struggle to gather that 17 billion rubles regardless of whether it will be enough. Does Lada make rockets?
Image: A Lada car, from Wikimedia Commons